It's Not Natural

With every new album dc Talk seems to step up a level. Their latest Supernatural is no

by Annie Danner

The ever-popular trio known as dc Talk has done it again. Never ones to rest on past successes, these former kings of Christian rap have reinvented their sound with each new album, from hip-hop to grunge to hard rock, never losing the distinctive essence and energy that has kept them riding high on the Christian Music charts for almost a decade.

It comes as no surprise that Supernatural, dc Talk’s newest musical incarnation, is fresh yet subtly familiar. Storming head-long into new musical territory, these three East Coast boys blend driving alternative pop melodies with revealingly introspective lyrics and a certain sophistication that may catch listeners off guard.

This ability to transform themselves artistically has been one of the keys to dc Talk’s remarkable success, but it’s not something they purposely set out to do. "I think it’s just growth, artistic growth," says unofficial group leader Toby McKeehan. "I really think it has to be that, because we don’t start out saying, OK, now let’s do a post-modern rock album. We just make our record."

Yet there is more than just artistic growth at work in the commanding sound and message. A new songwriting style, new family ties, and the potential for an entirely new audience all collide spectacularly to deliver the rich fullness and deep maturity of Supernatural.

Working Together

Though dc Talk—Kevin Max, Michael Tait and Toby—has been a record-making team for years, most of their songs have been written solo by each individual member. Not so with Supernatural. "The thing that sets Supernatural apart from any other record, for me, is that this is the first time all three of us were incorporated in the writing of each song," says the group’s poet laureate, Kevin. "I think all our ideas about life have taken shape as a whole or a collective in this."

Of course, fusing the creative energy and spiritual intensity of three very independent men was no easy task. "We learned to work together at a deeper level with this record," Toby says. "This time we sat in a room together and wrote out the words, and that was hard. It was a process that I think was good for us; we gained respect for each other. That’s the most valuable place you can possibly be, to throw out a lyric in front of other people … that’s tough.."

But the hard work paid off in the end. "I’m proud of the words we worked on together," Toby says. "They’re real, they’re relational, but also bathed in the Word, because our lives are."

Family Ties

But it is perhaps what has happened outside the recording studio that has had the most effect on what eventually happened inside the studio. Kevin, to the distress of thousands of female dc Talk fans, finally tied the knot a little over a year ago.

This new dimension to his life has not only softened a few rough edges, but also added a new depth to his faith. "I think she’s taught me a lot about myself," he admits with a shy laugh. "She grew up in a non-Christian home and came to know Christ through reading Francis Schaeffer. She treats her Christianity from a logical level and not a traditional level. It’s been a big message to me to find out who I really am. To not listen to just what I’ve been taught, but to look it up and find it myself. She’s really changed me."

Toby’s life is also changing: Sept. 9th he became a father. He and his wife Amanda had their first child, a boy—one who is already falling perfectly into the schedule of its musical family. The baby was born just two weeks before Supernatural released.

Like any new father, Toby is a little scared, but as a musician who travels quite a few days out of every month, he also faces a few extra challenges most new dads don’t. "We’re very much used to running you know, as a band, from city to city, hotel to hotel," he says. "Amanda fell right into that. (Having a child) is going to be a big transition for me, but I’m looking forward to it."

As one life entered the world, Michael found himself saying good-bye to a very special life this year, when his father went to be with the Lord in February. "That was really hard because all my life he was my hero," Michael says. "He was the greatest man I’ve ever known outside of Christ—the best God example. I’d had him all of my life, and it is so hard to lose someone that has been such a big part of your life."

These major life changes couldn’t help but touch the music each of these men were creating; every song on the album carries the fingerprints of each of these relationships. Toby says they’ve learned that a song can reflect Christ, even when the song is about their marriages, their friendships or interracial relationships. "At first, I thought we had to write every song directly vertical, from me to Christ and me to God," he says. "I’ve learned that you can write a song that is about our relationships … and that for me is reflective of Christ and what He did for us."

From this revelation flowed songs like "Godsend," a sentimental love ballad to Toby’s wife. "This was my first opportunity to write a romantic song," Toby says. "It ties two things together—not only the romance and passion I feel for my wife, but the fact that I am recognizing and honoring God for bringing her to me."

Taking it to the Masses

There is a final element that’s shaped the sound and style, though not the message, of Supernatural. From the very beginning dc Talk’s goal, according to Kevin, has always been to "bring our music to as big a crowd as possible."

With more than a million records sold from their last album alone, one might think they’d already attained this dream, but dc Talk has their sights set higher. They signed with mainstream record label Virgin Records (Rolling Stones, Smashing Pumpkins, Janet Jackson and others) for the making of Supernatural.

While this "crossover" more initially caused some concern among fans and Christian music insiders, the strong Christian message of this Virgin release has allayed most of these concerns. "Virgin to me is just a carrier for what we do to the public," Kevin says. "There was nobody in that infrastructure talking about changing what we do. It was quite the opposite; they realize that we carry a strong message and to water that message down is to lose what we stand for, to take the foundation out from underneath us."

Michael agrees—rather than this being a step away from Christian music, this is a step toward the people who most need to hear about Christ. "We used to have a saying, If dc Talk crosses over, we are taking the Cross over with us," he says. "It was always our goal to try to find a secular counterpart to work alongside our Christian label to help get the message out there."

One of the best things about this new relationship, Toby says, was that the group is also able to stay with their Christian label, ForeFront Records. "But as part of the deal in staying with ForeFront," Kevin says with a grin, "we told them they need to change their name to TalkFront."

With the added media attention of the new mainstream partner—as well as the guys’ loyalty to their rabid fan base—dc Talk was able to make Christian music history when Supernatural entered the Billboard Chart at No. 4, selling 106,213 copies its first week—the most ever sold at Christian retail in a debut week.

"We had tremendous excitement at the onset of this project," says Bob Rush, senior music buyer at Family Christian Stores. "We began with pre-selling, which we only do for select albums. It was the biggest pre-sell we’ve ever had."

But still, amid all the hoopla—including a major tour that kicked off in January—the members of dc Talk stay focused on why what they do is so important. "It’s a sacrifice to come on the road," Toby admits. "I wouldn’t leave home if I couldn’t point kids to God each night. Art is important, art is nice, but for me personally, art is not enough for me to leave my house as much as I do. But the Gospel is."

Reprinted by Permission Release Magazine, Dec'98/Jan'99 Issue.

dcTalk will be in concert at the CSU Convocation Center on Friday, March 12.